MAXWELL:  One player’s not enough to spoil game

10/24/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Although many pseudomoralists, especially newspaper pundits, have trashed Peter Warrick, the legal problems of this 21-year-old football standout are not the whole story.

Warrick _ the Florida State University wide receiver who was busted, along with teammate Laveranues Coles, for sweet-talking a Dillard’s department store worker into selling $412.38 worth of designer clothes for $21.40 _ is but a speck on the national landscape of big-time college football.

After some hold-your-breath finagling among Warrick’s lawyer, the university and the state attorney’s office, the felony grand theft charge against the Heisman hopeful was changed to a misdemeanor petty theft charge, thereby clearing the way for him to rejoin the nation’s top-ranked team in time to suit up against conference rival Clemson on Saturday.

Warrick will serve one year of probation with no jail time, pay $579 in restitution and $295 in court costs, stay out of Dillard’s, spend 30 days in a work program and donate the discounted clothes to the Children’s Home Society.

These are the kind of developments that give Division I-A football an ugly name. But college football _ especially winning programs _ has an important, positive side that we in the media rarely write about, and the thousands of Peter Warricks are the heart and soul of that positive side.

In a recent article about Kansas State University’s successful football program, Chronicle of Higher Education sports writer Welch Suggs gets to the heart of the matter: “According to conventional wisdom, a winning football team _ much more than any other sport, even basketball _ has immense payoff for an entire university. Winning teams make alumni, fans, board members, donors, students, and prospective students happy, and so the university prospers when its team does. Donations go up, applications go up, and the money pours in from fans, bowl payouts, and television contracts.”

Florida, my home state, has embraced college football completely. All sports insiders marvel, for example, that the University of South Florida’s team is a major contender in Division I-AA in its third season of existence. Just last week, the Bulls whipped sixth-ranked Illinois State and moved up to No. 17 in the polls. In 2001, the Bulls will join Division I-A, a phenomenal move for a start-up program.

Dividends from such success are clear. Because USF is on the central Gulf Coast, the joke used to be: “Where in South Florida is the University of Florida?” That joke is no more. Now, thanks to football, folks know Florida’s second-largest university is in Tampa.

Formerly a commuter campus without a yearbook, USF is getting sustained national attention for the first time. Profiles touting the university’s student enrollment, international diversity, faculty, courses, degrees and local amenities have appeared in prestigious news venues the likes of the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sports Illustrated and on major network and cable shows.

Even during the school’s first year of football in 1997, director of media relations Todd Simmons said, “Without doubt, our football program made all this possible. We can now leverage the publicity in ways that benefit us.”

One immediate benefit is that alumni now have reason to return to campus often. They are bonding like never before, and, of course, many are writing bigger checks _ more often. In addition to enticing alumni back to campus, the team is attracting some of Florida’s brightest students, and it is causing out-of-staters to give USF and the Tampa Bay region a closer look.

Administrators at other Florida universities have heard the triumphant news from Tampa and have contracted pigskin fever.

Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton will field its first football team in 2001. Its head coach, Howard Schnellenberger, is a proven winner. He helped Don Shula coach the 1972 Miami Dolphins to a 17-0 season, and he took the University of Miami Hurricanes to a national championship in 1979. A few miles down the road from FAU, Miami’s Florida International University has initiated the process of bringing football to the 27-year-old campus. Officials will ask the state Board of Regents, during the next three months, to approve their plan for a team.

“This is a society in which football is considered part of the collegiate experience,” Paul Gallagher, FIU’s senior vice president for business and finance, told the Miami Herald. “Kids want to get an education, obviously, but they also want to have a life. … Football does something for a university nothing else does.”

Predictably, many FIU faculty scorn football. FIU President Modesto Maidique, with former Miami Dolphins quarterback Don Strock as his point man in Tallahassee, believes, however, that the regents will let the gold-and-blue-clad Golden Eagles hit the gridiron in 2001.

Meanwhile, in another part of the nation where football is king, University of Oklahoma President David Boren echoes the sentiments of his counterparts at Florida Atlantic, Florida International and South Florida. “Football is not just football,” he said in the Chronicle. “It’s wrapped up in the spirit and self-consciousness of the state.”

Strictly in terms of football, Seminoles fans had good reason to wring their hands over the fate of Warrick. His loss would have been the university’s loss. And, like it or not, his loss would have been the state of Florida’s loss. We have a winning tradition. We are a place that produces national champions.

Warrick’s exceptional athleticism reflects Florida’s winning esprit de corps. Again, like it or not, Warrick’s lawyer, John Kenny, in describing the sentence handed down the day before the Clemson game, said it all: “It was a fair resolution for the state, a fair resolution for Peter Warrick and a fair resolution for the university. And we know it’s a fair resolution for our fans.”